Jesuit college president named in rape case

It is a black day for Jesuit education. Tuesday, Steven Sundborg, a member of the Society of Jesus and president of Seattle University, was accused of having knowledge of the rapes carried out by Henry Hargreaves, one of several priests named in a lawsuit filed by some 40 victims, mostly Alaskan Natives, of abuse by clergy.  Via the Seattle Times:

A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Seattle University President the Rev. Stephen Sundborg of knowing about an abusive Jesuit priest yet allowing that priest to remain in ministry when Sundborg served as provincial — or head — of the Jesuit order in the Northwest from about 1990 to 1996.

Sundborg is one of several defendants named in the lawsuit, filed by more than 40 men and women who say they were sexually abused as children or teens in Alaska years ago by Jesuits or those supervised by Jesuits.

The suit claims that as provincial, Sundborg had access to something called “hell files” — files containing information about Jesuit priests that was “not public,” and “not good.”

As such, Sundborg should have known that the Rev. Henry Hargreaves, one of the accused priests, had abused children, the suit says. Hargreaves could not be reached Tuesday evening. According to the lawsuit, he resides with the Jesuit community in Spokane.

The lawsuit says Native villages in Alaska were essentially a “dumping ground” for Jesuit priests unsuited to serve anywhere else. That characterization has repeatedly been denied by the Jesuits. However they also have paid out millions of dollars in recent years to settle sexual-abuse claims in Alaska.

Several of the plaintiffs and their attorneys plan to hold a news conference this morning near Seattle University.

Brendan Kiley of Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger apparently covered the conference:

Attorney Ken Roosa announced the lawsuit at a chilly press conference outside Seattle University this morning and said, as of today, he knows of 345 cases of molestation, only two of them against non-natives.

The Jesuits, he said, sent known pedophiles to isolated Alaskan villages—many of them only accessible by boat or plane—to let them abuse children with impunity.

“It was a pedophile’s paradise,” Roosa said. “We are going to shine some light on a dark and dirty corner of the Jesuit order…”

Today, Roosa said, there are 17,000 Catholics in the diocese of Fairbanks—which filed for chapter 11 last year—and were even fewer during the peak of the abuse, from 1960 to 1975.

The rate of child molestation by priests in Alaska, he said, “is several orders of magnitude larger” than anywhere else in the United States. (Roosa compared this lawsuit to one in Los Angeles, with 550 cases of abuse and a Catholic population of 3.5 million.)

Some members of the lawsuit spoke at the press conference, including Flo Kenny, a short woman with a steely gray ponytail and sunglasses.

“I am Flo Kenny,” she said slowly. “I am 74 years old. And I’ve kept silent for 60 years. I am here for all the ones who cannot speak—who are dead, who committed suicide, who are homeless, are drug addicts. There’s always been a time, an end of secrets. This is the time.”

She said her abuse started when she was 13 and depressed by the treatment she and other village children suffered from the nuns. “They managed us like wild ponies and beat us every day,” she said. “They said it was good for our character.”

She sought comfort from the village priest who began an abusive relationship that lasted several y ears. “The priest at that time took the role of the shaman and the tribal council, making the decisions,” she said. The priests held all the power in these remote towns and, according to the lawsuit, many of them were known sexual predators.

Another native, Rena Abouchuk, cried while she read a letter to her village priest: “You did so many evil things to young children… God will never forgive you.” Abouchuk said the priest raped and molested her and her cousins, often together in the same room, and offered to let them ring the church bell as a prize for complicity.

“You took a lot of lives,” she read aloud, crying and holding an eagle feather she’d been given at a “sobriety powwow” on New Year’s Eve. Six of her cousins, she said, have committed suicide because of that priest.

Abouchuk’s brother, wearing a black leather jacket and a blue bandanna, said the priest who abused him gave him a few quarters each time.

“My family was very, very poor at the time,” he said. “I tried to kill myself several times over this.” He became homeless, an alcoholic and drug addict, but has since become sober and lives with his sister in Spokane.

A former Benedictine monk, Patrick Wall, said 28 pedophiles from four countries were specifically sent to Alaska “to get them off the grid, where they could do the least amount of damage” to the church’s public image.

“The Catholic church has the largest body of documentation of non-incarcerated pedophiles in the world,” he said. “These guys should be sent to the Mayo clinic and studied to find out what makes them tick… they’re some of the weirdest characters you will ever meet.”

Three years ago, Roosa said, a former head of the Northwest Jesuits testified about the “hell files”—personnel files with information about priests that was “special,” “not public,” and “not good.” Sundborg allegedly would’ve had those files in his office when he was the head of the Northwest Jesuits. When Roosa tried to acquire those files from the Northwest Jesuits, he was told they didn’t exist.

Readers will call to attention that The Stranger is hardly a disinterested or level-headed critic of institutional Catholicism (The Vatican is listed under “Enemies” on their blog), so let me beat them to the punch. I’ve not seen these anywhere else, suggesting either A) original reporting on behalf of the blogger, Brendan Kiley, or B) forgery. However, I think the second eventuallity only to be possible if improbable. Other outlets simply may have thought the plaintiff’s statements would be too predictable and chose not to cover the event, found the press conference newsworthy but lacked the resources to cover it (like many, many papers now facing cutbacks), or covered and simply have not posted the story as of my blogging.

More from the Seattle Times:

The lawsuit, filed in Alaska Superior Court’s Bethel Judicial District, accuses six Jesuits or those supervised by Jesuits, of sexual abuses ranging from fondling to rape. The abuses allegedly took place from around the 1950s into the early 1990s in remote Alaskan villages.

All the plaintiffs are Alaska Natives.

Other defendants in the suit include the international Jesuit order, and the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province — the formal name of the Jesuits in the Northwest. The province covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The Very Rev. Patrick Lee, head of the Oregon Province, said in a statement that it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on the lawsuit since he hadn’t reviewed the allegations yet.

“The Oregon Province takes these allegations seriously and will investigate them to the fullest extent,” Lee said. “The province is committed to a just and healing course in all cases of misconduct and child abuse.”

In recent years, the Oregon Province has received numerous allegations of past sexual abuse, most of them involving Jesuits in Alaska. In November 2007, the province agreed to pay $50 million to 110 Alaska Natives — believed to be the largest settlement by a religious order in the Catholic Church abuse cases.

The Fairbanks Diocese, which owned and managed the churches in the villages where Jesuit priests, brothers and volunteers were assigned, filed for bankruptcy protection last March. About 300 people — including those who filed earlier lawsuits — have filed abuse claims with the diocese.

In Washington state, the Oregon Province agreed in January 2008 to pay $4.8 million to 16 Native Americans who were abused years ago when they were students at a boarding school near Omak.

Sundborg’s office released a brief statement,  here reproduced in its entirety:

The allegations brought against me are false. I firmly deny them. I want the victims and the entire community to know that. The complaint filed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers represents an unprincipled and irresponsible attack on my reputation. Let me be clear–my commitment to justice and reconciliation for all victims remains steadfast. The sexual abuse by Catholic priests is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of our church. I will continue to work toward the goal of bringing healing to all victims.


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